According to recent reports from NBC 4 and the New York Times, MSG Entertainment has been using facial recognition software to identify and in some cases exclude guests from entering venues owned by the company.
A recent case of a mother who was banned from attending the Christmas Spectacular at Radio City Music Hall with her daughter’s Girl Scout troop garnered media attention and outcry from critics who denounce the use of facial recognition software as a form of Orwellian surveillance. It also begs the question, should Phish fans attending this year’s New Year’s run at Madison Square Garden be concerned?
Earlier this month, Kelly Conlon, a personal injury lawyer from Bergen County, NJ, was denied entry to Radio City after being identified by MSG’s facial recognition system. She was told that she was on an “attorney exclusion list” because she worked for a law firm that was pursuing litigation against the company.
The attorney exclusion list was instituted earlier this year because “litigation creates an inherently adversarial environment,” according to MSG Entertainment, and it applies not only to individual lawyers suing the company, but all employees of firms pursuing litigation against it. The case of Kelly Conlon shows how the company enforces the list using computer software that is able to identify hundreds of lawyers based on the profile photos on their firms’ websites.
In a separate recent incident in October, Barbara Hart, an attorney at Grant & Eisenhofer, a law firm currently litigating against Madison Square Garden’s parent company in a Delaware class-action suit, was approached by security at a Brandi Carlile concert at the Garden and escorted out of the venue. Per Rolling Stone, Hart says she was informed by security that she had been removed due to her employment at the law firm.
Though the legality of the exclusion list itself is currently being challenged in both cases, this kind of facial recognition technology is legal in New York. In accordance with a recent New York City law, signs around the venues serve to notify patrons that biometric technology is in use “to ensure the safety of everyone.” Nonetheless, Conlon and Hart’s experiences prompted outcry from civil liberties watchdogs who criticize MSG Entertainment’s use of its facial recognition system as punitive rather than protective as the signs claim.
Madison Square Garden began using the facial recognition tech some time before it hosted the Grammys in 2018, and MSG Entertainment officials said the surveillance remains in use primarily to identify security threats including patrons put on a watchlist after breaking rules at the company’s venues. According to a new report by sports journalist Ethan Strauss, the watchlist also includes people who have been critical of or otherwise offended MSG Entertainment CEO James Dolan, including celebrities like filmmaker Spike Lee and actor Michael Rapaport.
Following the first night of Phish’s 2022 New Year’s run at Madison Square Garden, conversations on social media seem to suggest that the facial recognition system is being used on Phish fans, resulting in some being stopped at the door by security.
In one account posted to Reddit, a fan describes watching their friend get stopped on the way into the venue after going through the metal detector. Security asked the woman to confirm whether she was the person identified by the facial recognition software, which she was. They then reminded her of an incident when she was kicked out of the venue for trying to sneak in on New Year’s Eve in 2019 and asked if she was going to cause any problems. She said no and they let her into the show.
Another Reddit user commented, “This sounds like a good use of the facial recognition to me. If someone has a history of causing problems, keep them out.” They then added, “Now the story about the woman being kicked out just because she works for a law firm that was suing MSG,” referring to the previous incidents regarding opposing lawyers, “yeah that’s scary and dystopian.”
A few other Redditors shared similar accounts of being confronted by security and interrogated as to whether they were people on the watchlist—two at the same show and one several years ago. A couple fans claim to have been misidentified while another was correctly identified two nights in a row, but all were allowed to attend the concert after questioning.
So, should Phish fans be worried or not? For those who are not lawyers and have no history of misbehavior, the answer is probably not. For those who think they might be on the watchlist, the answer is still probably not. After all, the fans who got stopped made it into the show with nothing more than a paternalistic finger wag. Just beware, Big Brother is watching you.